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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Using photography to humanize statistics about poverty

Barnes discusses why he decided to use photography as his principle vehicle for promoting awareness of the work of the North Carolina Fund. In trying to raise awareness of issues related to poverty in North Carolina, Barnes explains that photography helped to humanize statistics about impoverished people. While he argues that it is difficult to discern the effectiveness of his photography, he notes that his photographs were widely used by the media during the War on Poverty.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Why did you use photography to such an extent in promoting the North Carolina Fund and doing the work of the Public Information Department as opposed to doing more press releases or more films or other means of communication?
Well, partly, because it's something I really felt I like knew how to do because of my McGraw-Hill experience and my general photographic experience. But I justified it—the expense and the time I was spending—in this way: You can write all you want to about people's problems. Until you see the people you're talking about—until you see their faces and see how they're dressed and see the looks on their faces, the children, the adults, the homes they live in, and see that A) they're human beings, the type that God loves just as much as He loves anybody else, just as much as He loves the president of the United States. There's beauty there. It's just been beat up on a little bit. Until you see these faces—I don't think until you have faces that go with the statistics about how many poor people there are and the statistics about median income and stuff and discrimination and all that—I think it really lacks impact. Because you can think, "Well, they're talking about somebody who lives in Lithuania." But, to show, especially the communities that we helped try to get their antipoverty programs off the ground, I developed a core of pictures. Then if we needed a slide program for Charlotte or for Rocky Mount, I would develop a whole lot of local pictures that obviously were in local places that these people could look at and see. You know, "This is something in my community that I've never seen. I didn't especially want to see it. But, dang, I drive within four blocks of that place every day." I think, well, "A picture is worth a thousand words." In many ways, that's true. So, I felt that if we had a library of photographs from which to draw—and this is something we could offer to the media and also use for our own use and could use it in little neighborhood presentations—that this would be at least as effective as all the words we could crank out with whatever kind of copying machine we had at the time.
I know we talked about public relation efforts are hard to measure. Did you see concrete instances or concrete examples of the impact of these photographs on communities, on people?
No, I don't know that I did because it's just like all of our other efforts. It's hard to document the changing of people's minds or the awakening of people's minds. However, I guess one way to gauge not the effectiveness but whether these were photographs were worth doing was the extent to which the media used them. [Barnes motions to a scrapbook of newspaper clippings on the Fund.] When you look in these scrapbooks, you'll see that when the Winston-Salem paper decided to do an opening front page of one of their Sunday sections on the War on Poverty, there'd be more space taken up with pictures than words. I think that to some degree is a measure of whether the effort and expense that we expended on these photographs—and keeping a file of them and knowing where they are, and keeping a log of every roll that was shot, and keeping a file of contact sheets, of proof sheets—was worthwhile. I think that was one measure of it. They were used. They were widely used. They were used by the national War on Poverty effort. They were almost always used by reporters who would come in to see what we were doing. So, I think that's about the only way you could measure. You knew that they weren't just sitting in a file. They were out there being used. They were being seen by anyone who flipped through the paper that morning.